Food Frenzy: Getting a Handle on Dietary Challenges

Reactions to nuts, dairy, gluten and sugar can be different for everyone. A dietitian can help you sort through the facts.

Creating healthy meals can be simpler once you sort through the abundance of information about what is and isn’t “good for you.” This is especially true for those who experience adverse reactions to certain foods. So we asked Suzy Sorensen, registered dietitian and diabetes educator, to help us get a handle on why some people shouldn’t eat certain foods.

There are three general categories associated with negative food reactions: food allergy, food intolerance and food sensitivity. A food allergy is a medical diagnosis caused by an immune response to the protein part of a food. Food intolerance is a general term for an abnormal response to certain foods or a food additive or component. Like allergies, food intolerances have measurable symptoms. But unlike allergies, intolerances are rarely life-threatening. For example, lactose intolerance is a physiological response to the naturally occurring sugar in milk. It can cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms but isn’t deadly. Food sensitivity is the most vague of the three categories, meaning it can’t be measured and has more to do with how a person feels when they eat certain foods.

Food allergies occur most often in children and there can be a hereditary component. It’s not unusual for children to begin experiencing symptoms once they begin eating solid foods, and some allergies can be outgrown.

For those newly diagnosed with nut allergies, hope is on the horizon. According to Sorensen, guidelines of the Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend delaying introduction of high-allergen foods such as wheat, eggs and nuts. But those guidelines have been changed based on recent research that seems to indicate there may be a benefit to early introduction, particularly with peanuts. “Ongoing research is needed,” Sorensen says. “Parents of children with any allergies may be advised to hold off on nuts. Because if a body is already having an immune reaction, you may not want to push your luck.”

Celiac disease is a central player in the gluten-free craze. It’s an auto-immune disorder that causes the body to overreact to gluten, the protein part of wheat. This disorder also tends to be hereditary. While similar to a wheat allergy, celiac disease can be more harmful because it can cause intestinal damage and nutritional deficiencies. Both conditions are treated by a 100 percent gluten-free diet.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be vague and difficult to diagnose. But Sorensen says, “If your own experience with going gluten-free is good, then go for it.” According to the latest research, however, gluten isn’t unhealthy for those who don’t have an allergy or sensitivity.

It’s also worth noting that sugar doesn’t cause diabetes. “Diabetes is highly hereditary, particularly type 2,” Sorensen says. And although diabetes isn’t caused by sugar, carbs are not a health food and so controlling carbs helps control blood sugar levels. Sorensen recommends most people eat a balanced diet. But depending on health issues, weight, food preferences and other factors such as aging or life changes, there may room for fine tuning your diet with help from an expert.

It’s important to note that, barring a diagnosable food allergy or intolerance, generalizations don’t always work for everyone, and this story doesn’t aim to offer personalized medical advice. Visiting a dietitian can help confirm that you’re getting a balanced diet and aren’t trying to digest all the misinformation out there.

Find more information: